Helen Guo was a kind girl whose main concern was passing her first year university classes.
The international student from China was studying management at the University of Toronto Scarborough campus, when, in May, a fire broke out in the rooming house she had been living in in Scarborough, reportedly with three others.
They made it out but Guo, 18, died.
Fire investigators found multiple safety hazards in the now burnt down home, from smoke detectors that didn’t work to a basement with only one exit — what they call a clear violation of the Ontario Fire Code. It’s widely suspected that the rooming house was illegal, but that has not yet been confirmed.
It’s a tragic loss, and one that shines a light on a number of issues that big cities around the world continue to grapple with — around housing, its increasing unaffordability in large urban centres, and the risks some people are prepared to take to put a roof over their heads.
In Toronto, it’s rooming houses — dwellings with multiple private units and shared kitchens and bathrooms — that fill in the affordability gap. They’re recognized as an important component of the city’s housing stock, providing accommodation to a wide range of people including students, seniors, new immigrants and those living on low incomes. But a patchwork of regulations means that in some neighbourhoods, this kind of housing is legal and subject to inspections, while in others they operate clandestinely, even though everyone knows they exist and the demand persists.
For long-time housing advocates, it’s a dilemma that can no longer be ignored.
“People need to be housed,” said Toronto city councillor Gord Perks. “Whether they have money or not. In an environment where city council makes it illegal for low income housing people to live in these neighborhoods, people still need to be housed so they move in anyways. If rooming houses were legal and inspected, we could keep those tenants safe.”
“People need to be housed. Whether they have money or not."
The case of Guo has also exposed the particularly vulnerable position students, especially foreign students, find themselves in when navigating unsafe living conditions, under fear of eviction, and without many options to turn to.
“Our foremost consideration must be the safety of all the people who live in all those houses including students.”
Mayor John Tory made those remarks in the days after Guo’s death, while vowing to address the problem.
But city council has yet to make any changes to its housing policies regarding rooming homes this year. Before the fire, it rejected a motion brought forward by Councillor Gord Perks that would have made them legal across the city.
“Mayor John Tory voted no to that (motion), he’s missed his chance to do something that would help,” said Perks, whose own ward of Parkdale instituted a program that, through a mix of incentives and penalties, managed to convert about 80 illegal rooming houses, into legal ones.
This isn’t a new battle. For years, different housing group advocates have struggled to make rooming homes legal and safe across the city.
According to the City of Toronto Website, there are 306 licenced rooming homes across the city, the largest amount coming from Parkdale High Park, which has 76 rooming homes.
Benjamin Ries, a housing lawyer at the Downtown Legal Services at the University of Toronto, which is also an active member of Tenant Advocacy Group, believes that banning rooming houses only invites illegal ones, since it is some of the only housing that is affordable to lower income people.
“As long as the cost of housing remains high, people will need to find ways to rent just a room, rather than a whole house. Our arguments on this have not changed, and are no mystery to the municipal politicians involved,” Ries said.
Perks says his attempts to address the issue have been blocked by suburban councillors, especially in Scarborough.
“Their view is simply close all these places, that’s what they think we should do,” he said. “But of course, that doesn’t solve the problem, that just drives it further underground making it more dangerous for the people out of desperations for any housing they can get,” said Perks.
Jim Hart, councilor for ward 44 in Scarborough, noted that students depend on rooming houses around universities and colleges. However, he also says that rules need to be enacted to “protect the integrity of the neighborhood” and that many residents in the community oppose rooming homes.
Perks disagrees, saying that keeping individuals out of certain neighborhoods is “pandering to the worst instincts of people who want to have the right to say who can and can’t live in their neighborhoods based on how much money they have.”
“In some parts of the city people believe only single families should be allowed to live there. It’s basically a discriminatory housing policies to keep low income people out of certain parts of the city,” he said.
Guo’s death isn't the first to occur in a rooming house. In 2014, two people died in a fire in a rooming house above a Korean restaurant in Kensington Market. Guo's case prompted a closer look at suspected rooming homes in the area. But in general, city staff can’t simply go into someone’s house to ensure that a building or unit is up to code.
"Rules need to be enacted to “protect the integrity of the neighborhood."
According to Perks if someone is paying rent to live somewhere, you can’t evict them without due process, even if inspectors find something illegal going on. These tenants have protections that are enshrined in provincial law.
He also says this means inspections cannot be done on rooming homes where students are living because they are technically not supposed to exist, as a result, giving no jurisdiction to law enforcement to come in.
Daniela Magisano, a policy advisor for Mayor Tory, says a report from city staff regarding rooming homes is expected to come to City Council as early as 2019.
“The Mayor looks forward to seeing the results of this review and finding a balanced approach between housing affordability and safety, which must always be a priority. Housing affordability is a critical issue in this City and, during his time as Mayor, he has approved thousands of units of new affordable housing while keeping property taxes low.”
Among the pressures of university life, finding affordable housing ranks high among them. On campus residences can cost upwards of $1,000 a month, and there is limited room. Students at UTSC say they have few options, and little choice but to band together with other roommates to make rent off campus.
“I don’t expect the school to act as an omnipresent guarantor of security for its students,” says Salma Sharif, a third-year student at UTSC and an advocate for students on issues like housing.
“But I do have the very reasonable expectation that as students paying thousands of dollars towards this institution, that there is at least an honest effort towards ensuring that we have decent and safe living conditions.”
"It’s basically a discriminatory housing policies to keep low income people out of certain parts of the city."
The University of Toronto hasn’t taken any steps to lower housing costs on campus, nor has the institution made additional rooms available for its growing number of students each year. There are also no housing subsidies available, although school representatives says students can access support for budgeting and applications to scholarships and bursaries through financial aid if needed.
Don Campbell, a media relations officer at UTSC, says the school has plans to double beds on campus by 2021, with a new 750 bed residence.
In terms of the off campus housing problem, Campbell says the school “supports all initiatives that help ensure students and neighbours have access to safe and legal housing.”
“We’ve been working closely with our local councillor and Highland Creek residents to address the issue of illegal rooming houses in our neighbourhood. One of the recommendations the city is proposing is to try inspected, licensed rooming houses in Highland Creek,” Campbell said.
Perks says U of T, along with other universities, have expressed support for his attempts at making off campus rooming housing legal.
Many of the students VICE News spoke with are young adults who came from halfway across the world with no guarantee of housing once they arrived. They said that if the school can’t offer them space at a lower rate, they risk signing a contract with a landlord who can evict them at any given notice since their dwellings aren’t legal in the eyes of the government.
Jane Lui, a student at UTSC from Hong Kong, and friend of Helen Guo’s (pictured to the left in a Facebook photo), says the school should set aside residences for international students, even when they apply late, as in her case. Campbell says the school does guarantee a spot in residence for all its first-year students including international students.
“I tried to apply but it was full, I had to look elsewhere, many of my friends went through the same thing” Lui said.
Sharif, who lived next to Guo and called 911 on the night of the fire, says a limited knowledge of local laws, as well as their own rights as tenants makes international students “easy targets” for exploitative landlords. She says they’re too busy simply trying to find a roof over the heads to focus on whether prospective landlords are adhering to fire codes or other regulatory matters.
“This is where I would expect other parties such as the university, local policymakers and other governing bodies to actively put in place measures that protect students,” Sharif said.
Jazz Wong agrees. The Hong Kong native thinks schools should go so far as to provide loans for rent.
“Most of us international students are lost and confused in this new country,” she said in an interview. “We are susceptible to fraud and lies. Homeowners or landlords could take advantage of us, and even of our lives. The school should do as much as it can to protect us from harm.”
The Scarborough Campuses Student Union (“SCSU”), a student-led union that represents all students on campus, said it is continuing to lobby the university to build more on-campus living quarters for students.
"We are susceptible to fraud and lies."
And it says that the school “has a responsibility” to make resources for off-campus housing available to students, “so that students can make informed decisions.”
Wong counts herself as lucky: she has lived on her own in Canada for nearly two years and has found safe living arrangements with fair landlords.
Lui is also fortunate, since her uncle who lives in Toronto scoped out a safe building for her to live in. Although it’s a rooming home, Lui says it’s a good one, kept up-to-date, clean, and safe.
Sharif no longer lives in the Haida Court home she shared with six to ten other people. Fire officials responding to the blaze that killed Guo suggested she leave for her own safety, although no one came to inspect the residence.
“It was only after my discussion with local law enforcement, investigators and others that I realized where I was living was not only unsafe, but also illegal,” she said. “With no regular maintenance and inspection of smoke and CO detectors, as well as other aspects pertaining to the actual infrastructure of the house, there existed many safety risks that weren’t overly evident to me,” Sharif said.
But Sharif’s former roommates, who are mainly international students, stayed behind. And they have no plans on leaving.
Cover image via Facebook